Kalle Rovanpera’s commanding lead of the FIA World Rally Championship’s Croatia Rally came under serious threat from Ott Tanak during Saturday’s absorbing second leg.
WRC points leader Rovanpera began the second of three days in the hills near Zagreb with a seemingly impregnable lead of almost 90s over Tanak. But the 21-year-old Finn ended Saturday’s eight special stages with his advantage slashed to just 19.9s after suffering a puncture in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1.
Hyundai’s Tanak had already eaten into Rovanpera’s lead when the Finn punctured his left-front tire on the morning’s penultimate speed test amid heavy rain and thick fog at the Platak ski resort above the Adriatic coast.
The pair were the only front-runners who had the advantage of Pirelli’s wet weather tires on all four corners of their cars. While Tanak pushed on through the gloom to win the stage in his i20 N Rally1, Rovanpera conceded almost 55s.
Tanak, the 2019 WRC champ, sniffed the opportunity of a first victory for more than a year and nibbled back more time, despite an afternoon gearchange problem. But Rovanpera sent a clear message in the final test, setting fastest time to regain 5.1s over the Estonian.
“This is my reply,” said a defiant Rovanpera after the day’s closing stage. “It was a good stage, full speed, but we still have a difficult day to come tomorrow.”
Tanak admitted the Platak test was an eye opener: “In these conditions you don’t care about the time, you’re just happy to make it through,” he said. “It was like a different place in the world. But this afternoon I didn’t have a good feeling to really push to the limits.”
While conditions on the other stages were drier than Friday’s rain-blighted first leg, the weather deteriorated in Platak, with thick fog making conditions treacherous, and the afternoon’s repeat pass was cancelled.
M-Sport Ford’s Craig Breen and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville were separated by just 4.9s for the final podium place, almost a minute behind Tanak. Breen overshot a hairpin in his Puma Rally1 but holds third, while Neuville’s torrid weekend took yet more twists.
The Belgian received a one-minute penalty overnight for speeding on Friday, which relegated him from second to fourth. His Hyundai i20 N had to be pushed into service on Saturday morning and another 10sec penalty came for leaving a minute late.
Still, Neuville clawed back almost 40s from Breen to end hot on the Irishman’s heels and 49.9s clear of Elfyn Evans. The Welshman won the day’s opening test in his factory GR Yaris, but was reluctant to take too many risks when on course for his first points finish of the season.
Takamoto Katsuta rounded out the top six. The Japanese driver dropped time with a puncture in his GR Yaris and an overshoot, putting him almost 3m40s adrift of Evans at the end of the leg.
Hyundai’s Oliver Solberg crashed his i20 N out of fifth in the opening stage, which was cancelled as rescue vehicles attended a fire at the rear of the beached machine.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Yohan Rossel’s PH Sport Citroen C3 holds a 35.1s lead over second-placed Nikolay Gryazin’s Skoda Fabia Evo. The all-American crew of Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani are 11th in class in their Sainteloc Citroen C3, racking up stage miles and experience, but 7m53.8s off the class lead.
Sunday’s final leg journeys north of Zagreb and features two special stages that are each driven twice for a total of 33.85 miles. The closing 8.76-mile test forms the Wolf Power Stage, with bonus points on offer to the five fastest crews.
WRC Croatia Rally, leading positions after Day Two, SS16
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 2h14m54.5s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +19.9s
3 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m13.4s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m18.3s
5 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m08.2s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +5m47.7s
7 Yohan Rossel/Valentin Sarreaud (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +8m24.6s
8 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia Evo) +8m59.7s
9 Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak (Skoda Fabia Evo) +9m15.5s
10 Emil Lindholm/Reeta Hamalainen (Skoda Fabia Evo) +9m49.3s
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